“Humans come and go. Long live Khalistan,” were the words of Avtar Singh Khanda before he took his final breaths on a ventilator in Birmingham City Hospital.
If he were not linked to radical separatists in India, the 35-year-old’s passing on June 15 would have been treated by the community as a tragic sudden death. But his support for Khalistan, a movement for a breakaway Sikh state which is causing alarm among extremism experts in the UK, has led to lurid claims his death was intentional.
Despite police and doctors’ assurances that he died of natural causes, his death has prompted feverish speculation he was poisoned and one of a number of Khalistan supporters allegedly assassinated by India.
Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, has accused India of involvement in the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar who was shot dead outside a temple in British Columbia in June, three days after Mr Khanda’s death.
The Khalistan insurgency led to bloodshed in Punjab in the 1980s when thousands died but in more recent years non-violent protests have spread across the Sikh diaspora.
Intimidated by the Indian government
Activists say they are being intimidated by the Indian government on UK soil but counter-extremism experts have described radical support for the movement as divisive and potentially dangerous.
Mr Khanda, originally from Moga district in Punjab, lived in Oldbury not far from one of Europe’s country’s largest gurdwaras in Smethwick. Indian media have claimed Mr Khanda was head of the Khalistan Liberation Force - which friends in the UK dispute - but he was an aide to Amritpal Singh, a radical separatist preacher.
A copy of his death certificate seen by the Telegraph shows he died of acute myeloid leukaemia and a blood clot in his lungs with the findings signed off by a registrar.
However, his family have refused to accept the explanation and claim there has been a cover-up.
“My son was killed by poisoning,” his mother Charanjeet Kaur, said. “I mean, who develops and succumbs to cancer within just four days? Cancer doesn’t manifest within such a short span.”
She spoke to him two days before his death and he had a “mere bout of physical pain” and claimed no one in the family had ever had cancer.
“I am telling you he was poisoned. You should ask the hospital authorities. They would know who the doctors and other people involved in his murder.”
‘Fears for their personal safety’
Others have complained of threats with Pat McFadden, the MP for Wolverhampton South East, writing to the Home and Foreign secretaries that one of his constituents “fears for their personal safety” after being named on an Indian government appeal.
The letter, which referenced the murder of Mr Nijjar, asked ministers to raise the issue with their counterparts in Delhi, adding: “I imagine the government position is this is a matter for India. However, it is also the case that the holding of opinions alone should not lead anyone to fear they may be killed”.
Experts have said that concerns over Indian’s government’s crackdown on support for Khalistan were being exploited by extremists in the UK. The Shawcross report into the government’s Prevent strategy said that there was a false narrative being peddled by a “tiny number of pro-Khalistan groups operating in the UK that the government is colluding with its counterpart in India to persecute Sikhs”.
“Such groups’ narratives glorify violence carried out by the pro-Khalistan movement in India. While the current threat is low, praise for violence overseas and a simultaneous belief in a state-led campaign of repression domestically is a potentially toxic combination for the future. “
Protests at the Indian High Commission in London in March saw two security guards injured and supporters smash windows before the flag was removed from the first floor balcony in place of yellow banners.
It was later claimed Mr Khanda pulled down the flag and his face was published in a wanted list by the Indian National Investigation Authority about the disorder.
Sikh groups have claimed Mr Khanda, who was never arrested or charged over the flag incident, died in a “targeted” assassination. Jas Singh, of Sikh Federation UK, claimed he had been “falsely identified as the mastermind and perpetrator of that act”.
‘They made him enemy number one’
“They made him enemy number one,” he said. “They basically put out a callout for any Indian patriot to deal with him.”
He said that soon after Mr Khanda appeared on the NIA’s “hitlist” he received a call saying “we have your sister and you mother here, we know what you are capable of” after they were arrested in India.
“They are harassing him, intimidating him and threatening him. This is somebody really fit, 6ft 2in, he’s absolutely fine, then a week later he is admitted to hospital seriously ill. Within 72 hours he died. Doctors had said his condition was treatable”.
It is claimed that requests for a full autopsy were denied and the family “were blackmailed into accepting the death certificate” in a row over visas for the funeral which were blocked.
Activists have been unable to provide evidence to back up the poisoning claim but say their “working theory” is that he was poisoned with clotting agents either before or after he was admitted to hospital.
“He was young and healthy, He was on a hit list, he is now dead,” Mr Singh said.
The dispute comes amid years of simmering tensions between police and some Sikhs who have accused officers of spying for India and falsely branding people terrorists.
A community source said they did not believe Mr Khanda had been poisoned but officers had not done enough to quash speculation.
“There is a lot of disinformation. No one has provided a credible theory on poisoning. But the police have failed to address concerns and how explain they have investigated thoroughly,” he added.
“It is likely this was just illness, but there is a real fear among some people that something like a poisoning could happen.”
A spokeswoman for West Midlands Police said: “Following speculation surrounding the death of Avtar Singh Khanda, a thorough review was undertaken by West Midlands Police which concluded that there were no suspicious circumstances.”